Dragons down Panthers in shootout

The Collierville Dragons hosted the Bartlett Panthers Friday night as both teams closed out the regular season. The Dragons put points on the board with a touchdown in the opening minutes of the game, and the Panthers answered immediately with seven points of their own. It looked to be a back and forth game, but the Dragons began to pull away. By the second half, it was clearly not the night to be a Panther. The Collierville Dragons celebrated their seniors and finished the season with a 58-35 victory over Bartlett. PICTURED: Senior running back Mikho Grandison weaves his way through Bartlett’s defense. Photo by Roger Cotton.
The Collierville Dragons hosted the Bartlett Panthers Friday night as both teams closed out the regular season. The Dragons put points on the board with a touchdown in the opening minutes of the game, and the Panthers answered immediately with seven points of their own. It looked to be a back and forth game, but the Dragons began to pull away. By the second half, it was clearly not the night to be a Panther. The Collierville Dragons celebrated their seniors and finished the season with a 58-35 victory over Bartlett. PICTURED: Senior running back Mikho Grandison weaves his way through Bartlett’s defense. Photo by Roger Cotton.

It was off to the races for Collierville and Bartlett on Friday and now it is off to the playoffs.

Combining for 93 points, 934 yards total offense, career performances in rushing, passing and kicking, the Region 4-6A teams that finished the regular reason with 3-7 records prepared for their next season in metro Nashville with a non-stop offensive shootout that left both teams breathless.

With a career 257 yards passing from Collierville quarterback Matt Connors that included two touchdowns, Mikho Grandison returning a kickoff 92 yards to the Bartlett 3-yard line coupled with his tunnel screen pass from Connors that went 76 yards for a touchdown, Dylan Scott kicking field goals of 38, 43 and 42 yards, the most in his career, plus a perfect six-for-six extra points and Peyton McCay, Connors and Cole Johnson each running for two touchdowns, Collierville defeated Bartlett 58-35 on Senior Night in Collierville.

Trading touchdowns, the game’s first defensive stop didn’t happen until 5:23 was left in the second quarter.

To catch his breath Bartlett senior running back Marquavis Weaver would jog to the sideline, get a quick swig of water and get ready for the next play. That was the only time that Weaver jogged. He rushed for a career high 267 yards on 22 carries and scored a career-high four touchdowns to achieve a goal.

“I was expecting to get at least 200 yards in this game and hit 1,000 yards for the season. I have 1,000-something,” said Weaver, who ran a 4.5- 40 as a sophomore, the last time he was clocked. “It feels good. It’s a blessing to see what I can showcase. My mind coming in here was to give it my all and play hard once again for God.”

Weaver, who is 5-11, 200, had touchdown runs of 4, 3, 55 and 72 yards.

“Marquavious played an incredible game. He is an amazing athlete and difficult to slow down. He is a vital part of our offense. Every time he gets the ball there is a chance something big is going to happen,” said Bartlett quarterback J.J. Vaden.

Vaden, who threw a 37-yard touchdown pass for Bartlett’s first touchdown to Joshua Exom , completed 9-of-16 passes for 104 yards and rushed for 80.

“J.J. had a good night offensively. He played really well,” said Bartlett head coach Tim Haney.

When Collierville would score, Bartlett would counter. Not until the third quarter when the Dragons scored 24 points to Bartlett’s 14, did they gain breathing room.

“In a shoot-out like that, you are going to give up good points. They have a lot of good athletes. They have a good offense,” said Connors, a junior. “I have been watching their offense and defense. No. 12 (Vaden) is very talented. No. 9 (Weaver) and No. 88 (Exom) have a got a lot of speed. No. 9 made a huge impact. He helped his team tremendously. He is a great athlete. I knew it was going to be an offensive game. I am glad that we came out on top.”

Vaden said, “I think the most significant difference in the game was big plays on both sides. Collierville made some big plays that put the momentum on their side and we had some big plays of our own. It was really fun to be part of a shoot-out like that. To have our offense in a good rhythm made it hard for us to be stopped. I feel confident heading into the playoffs. It is going to be tough but our team is going to fight hard and leave everything on the field.”

The victory put Collierville at 2-5 in the region. The Dragons will play at Region 3-6A No. 3 –seed Wilson Central (8-2) at 7 p.m. this Friday in Lebanon. Bartlett (0-7 in region) will play at 3-6A’s No.1-seed Mt. Juliet (8-2) at the same time.
“I feel like a lot of Nashville teams equate to Memphis teams, like Whitehaven and Cordova. We have not had much success against them but had the experience. If we put it together like this, it will be good,” said Connors.

Collierville head coach Mike O’Neill and Haney both said playoffs usher a new season.

“Everybody in the state now is 0-0. So we will see what happens,” said O’Neill. “I think our best football is ahead of us. If we put four quarters together there are a lot of teams we can beat.”

Said Haney, “We are 0-0. We play one of the top teams in the state in Mt. Juliet. We are going to have to play hard.”
Weaver said, “It’s anybody’s game in the playoffs.”

The game on Friday became Collierville’s through an on-side kick. After Grandison’s 92-yard kickoff return to the Bartlett 3 and Connors scored from the 4 after a lost yard, the Dragons took a 35-21 lead in the third quarter.

Scott then kicked an on-sider that Collierville’s Josh Young recovered at the Bartlett 36-yard line. Connors then threw a pass to Ben Tate who ran to the 2. From there, Connors scored for a 42-21 lead with 8:57 left in the third.

“I think the big change was the recovery on the kickoff. I think that was a big momentum change. I can definitely say that is when a lot of their guys started talking a little bit. Once they start doing that, you know that you pretty much got them,” said McCay.

“That was a pivotal point in the game,” said Collierville senior linebacker Tyler Garvey.

Said Connors, “That onside kick was huge. We scored right away. It’s deflating for them.”

Collierville senior outside linebacker Alex Smith had a different play in mind as a game-changer. Justin Ragin blocked a Bartlett punt at the Panthers’ 15 with 3:50 left in the third quarter. Devan Reynolds recovered. Scott would then kick a 38-yard field goal to put the Dragons ahead 52-28.

“It set up the offense with great field position,” said Reynolds, a senior defensive lineman, who has been a captain in almost all games.

Said Smith, “That really gave us some momentum. We weren’t wrapping up guys. They were bouncing off tackles and taking it to the house. Once we started wrapping up and gang tackling, we were good. Our offense did their part. They put up numbers. We had seniors trying to get some playing time so we were trying to get them on the field. They (Panthers) scored a lot more than they should have. Overall it was a pretty decent game.”

Haney said that Connors’ 76-yard touchdown screen pass to Grandison with 5:08 left in the third quarter which gave the Dragons a 49-28 lead was a backbreaker.

“We had them backed up and we gave up the long screen pass (on third-and-six). It’s hard to keep digging yourself out of a hole. We have got to learn to stop doing that.”

One of 26 seniors, Grandison caught three passes for 109 yards, rushed for 45 yards and had 188 yards in kick returns.
“Mikho, what can you say? He is amazing. He is a big kick returner. He had long runs. I threw a ton of passes to him and he took one about 80 yards. It was all him. It was fantastic,” said Connors.

“Mikho played solid. He is not afraid of anything. That kid has got good vision. He gets the space in a hurry. He is a special kid. He has had a great year,” said O’Neill. “We were able to distribute the ball. That is the thing about this offense. When it is clicking we have a lot of different weapons. We can distribute the ball pretty good. Matt has the ability to do that.”

Connors returned after battling mononucleosis.

“We have missed him, his presence,” said O’Neill. “He was sick for a month, even back in the Arlington game. The height of it was against Houston. We didn’t detect it until soon after and then he missed two games. What he does in leading the troops and his ability to throw the football, he does a great job. We were clicking offensively. “

Connors, who completed 14-of-18 passes, said that he felt good.

“I had to rest with mono and I was really excited about Senior Night. I wanted to play well for my team and make sure they came out there with a W. The whole offense was looking amazing. We executed really well. The offensive line was doing an amazing job. Our receivers were running great routes. The running backs were running really well. That gave me confidence that we were playing on another level.

“I was not doing too much. I was getting the ball to people when they were open and handing it off when it needed to be handed off. I have got to make sure I am not getting out of the pocket too quick and I have got to stay in the pocket and make reads. I thought everyone was playing awesome. I feel better about myself as a playmaker. I have a lot of guys who can help me out. I have got a lot of teammates who can do a great job. It makes me feel good.”

Another playmaker was McCay, a senior who gained 71 yards on 16 carries and scored on a 7-yard pass from Connors and a 1-yard run.

“Peyton is playing good football. He is very hungry. He ran hard. I could tell Senior Night he wanted to leave everything out there and he did. I was proud of him,” said O’Neill.

“Coach O’Neill was saying that this was a big night for the seniors and quite possibly the last time we play here so it’s a big win. I am happy for a full-team win. It means more than the seniors getting out this way, we needed a win,” said McCay.
“It is definitely more emotion. This is up there with the emotions that we experienced in the Houston game. I have been playing here with the majority of the guys since the sixth or seventh grade so that was coming in with a lot of emotion plus we won big, It is a little bittersweet. There were multiple people with multiple touchdowns. I might never get to play football here again and I will pass here every now and then and just look at home many years and effort I put on this field and in the weight room.”

O’Neill and McCay praised the Collierville offensive line of John Hassell, Ahmad Malone, Chuck Christian, Austin Kelley, Tommie Franklin, Dane Olson. All are seniors except Kelley, who is a junior.

“Shout outs to them. They all deserve player of the week,” said McCay. “Those guys will do anything for me. I am really good to them. I tell off the bat that I could never do their job. I never get up and get mad at them if they miss a block and I get hit. I get up and move on. They don’t get any credit where the credit is due for them. Austin will have a great year next year.”

Said Hassell, “It helped us to get our center Chuck Christian back from injury. This high scoring gives us motivation going into the playoffs. It feels great to win my final home game.”

O’Neill said, “John Hassell has been consistent all year. Ahmad Malone had a good night. Austin Kelly played hard. They pushed people around.”

Calling it his team’s best offensive game of the season, Haney praised his offensive line of Nathan Johnson, Carter Webb, Jalen Fields, Jalen Munn, Cole Simonton.

“It was definitely an offensive battle. We have played a lot of young guys,” said Haney. “They play hard. I am proud of of how they play. We are under- manned at times. Marquavis had a great night. I am sure he will be the first to tell you that the offensive line did a great job for him and even some of the times where we had some busts up front, he made something happen. The offense played really well tonight.”

Weaver said, “I want to give a shout out to the offensive line for playing hard tonight and helping me. I couldn’t have done it without them and I want to thank D’ Vocia Walker who was in the backfield with me for being a decoy.”

A strong safety, Walker said that he was playing both sides of the ball, “just trying to keep the defense’s head up when their head was down when long passes were being thrown. I thought if the defense got two stops, we will still be in the game but they took off on us. I learned that we kept fighting. I was doing the best I can.”

Weaver has heard from recruiters from Memphis, Murray State, Eastern Illinois, Tennessee Tech.

“I don’t know what the future holds. I am going to stay patient,” he said.

McCay said, “No. 9 (Weaver) is a great running back. We had a hard time stopping him. He looked like a big boy out there. I think our boys were bouncing off him a couple of times but hey, 250 yards in a loss is OK.”

O’Neill said, “No. 9 is a heck of an athlete. I knew they had some talent on offense. I looked at the film and they were getting better and better each week. They put up 35 points on Arlington.”

Scott put up 15 points of his own.

“I am extremely happy with our kicking game situation. Dylan’s three field goals plus kickoffs in end zone, that is huge in high school because you can’t return it,” said O’Neill. Seven of his 10 kickoffs were touchbacks.

A senior, Scott has been kicking since his sophomore season. Twice this season he has been nominated KOHIS national player of the week. That is a professional kicking camp with the best coaches in the nation. The organization does rankings for ESPN, NFL and college kickers. He went to the camp this past summer in Wisconsin and was ranked 88th on kick-offs.

Last season he was all-district, all-region, all-metro.

“Hopefully, I will get those honors again this year,” he said. “On the field it is just like practice but is more exciting and motivating to win. I love kicking and want to be the best I can be.”

His longest attempted field goals of 43, 42 and 41 yards he has made.

“The game is always fun when your team is doing well and you are doing well. I’m always focused on the game from the sidelines because I am watching my chance to do my best and make sure my technique is perfect and that I’m stretched before I go out on the field.”

Bartlett kicker Brian Cannon was also perfect on his extra points kicking five and kicked two punts for an average of 30 yards.

The Dragons scored touchdowns on its first seven drives and field goals on its next three. Bartlett scored touchdowns on four of its first five drives.

Bartlett had 351 yards rushing while Collierville had 222. Passing Bartlett had 104 and Collierville 257. Bartlett converted 9-of-14 third downs, Collierville 7-of-11.

Exom led Bartlett receivers with 69 yards on three receptions. Phillip Thompson IV had 27 yards. Marcus Bersoza had four receptions for 69 yards for Collierville. Tate had 34 yards receiving, Justin Stonework had 17 yards, Jordan Henderson 10, Auggie Burke and McCay nine each.

The Dragons took a 7-0 lead on Connors’ 4-yard touchdown run with 7:07 left in the first quarter. A 10-yard pass to Stonework and 13-yard pass to Grandison, a 12-yard run by McCay set up the score. Bartlett tied the game on the pass from Vaden to Exom three minutes later.

A 26-yard pass from Connors to Grandison got the Dragons to the Bartlett 12. Johnson then scored on a 12-yard run with 3:23 left.

Weaver’s 4-yard touchdown tied the game at 14. He had a 26-yard gain in the drive. Exom had an 11-yard reception from Vaden.

McCay put the Dragons on top 21-14 with 9:11 left in the second quarter. Bersoza had a 13-yard catch in the 57-yard, eight-play drive.

The Dragons then went 77 yards in 10 plays. McCay scored on a 1-yard run. Nicholas Thompson kicked the PAT for a 28-14 lead with 1:11 in the second quarter. Bersoza caught a pass from Connors for 20 yards and another for 30 yards. Grandison had a 15-yard run.

The Panthers pulled to within 28-21 on Weaver’s 3-yard TD with 10:10 left in the third. Weaver had a 16-yard run before Vaden had one of the best runs of the night, a 46-yard run that went from the Bartlett to the Dragon 17 where Johnson tackled him.

With Grandison setting it up on the kickoff return, Connors ran 4 yards for a 35-21 lead with 9:24 left.

Leading 35-21, the Dragons would increase the lead to 42-21 on Johnson’s touchdown.

A 55-yard touchdown by Weaver pulled the Panthers to within 42-28. Connors’ 76-yard pass to Grandison made it 49-28. Scott’s 38-yard field goal made it 52-28. His 43-yarder increased the lead to 55-28.

Weaver then raced 72 yards for a touchdown with 7:49 left to play and Cannon’s PAT made it 55-35. Scott’s 42-yard field goal increased the lead to 58-35.

“Offensively I think it is our best game, defensively I think it is one of our worst,” said Garvey. “ We have got to work on tackling drills. We really did a bad job of tackling tonight and also handling our responsibilities. They ran a lot of option stuff and in football if one person doesn’t take care of their responsibilities it’s off to the races, a high-scoring game.”

Recruited by Southeast Missouri State, Garvey attended a football game there on Saturday. Memphis, Cumberland, Murray State are also looking at him, he said.

O’Neill said that Bersoza played well. Smith said that Carson Rees, a junior defensive end, was in on a lot of tackles (six).

“I think Tyler was too hard on defense,” said Connors. “They made some key stops to allow the offense to keep scoring and get a lead for the team.”

O’Neill said, “We have got to tackle a little better.”

Haney said, “On defense, we have got to get better. We are playing a lot of underclassmen. We started two freshmen.”
Dakota Tucker and Exom each had six tackles for Bartlett. Brandon Smith and Shawn Tyler had five each. Jacob Robinson and Kenneth Counce had four each.

Elijah Holcomb led the Dragons with seven tackles.

Reynolds finished with five tackles along with Bailey Howell and Ragin. Johnson had four.

“It feels good to come out here on Senior Night. I love these guys. I am glad we got a win for them going into the playoffs. It is a big confidence boost,” said Connors.

The victory provides “a pretty good outlook in attitude coming off a win” said O’Neill. “It gets the guys in the right frame of mind. Offensively we know that we can do something and it’s been there. We haven’t been able to capitalize on it.
‘You are always glad when Senior Night comes around. You want these guys to go out winning on the field and have that feeling. These guys have worked extremely hard in their careers. There have been some hiccups this year with the two forfeits. We were in close games and lost a heart breaker to Houston and a close one to Arlington. We were in it with White Station. This team could have seven or eight wins under them.”

Said Reynolds, “It was very intense and emotional, my last time to ever play on that field. It means everything to me to finish our last game on the right note. We put in so much work and I have played there around five years. This season hasn’t turned out even close to what I had expected coming in but we have faced a ton of adversity and lost some very close games but going into the playoffs is like a whole new season. Anything can happen.”

Written by Bill Sorrell, special to the Express.